Conan the Barbarian by Robert E. Howard
The Classic Original Stories that inspired the film
Reissue, Published by Gollancz, August 2011
ISBN: 978 0 575 11349 7
Of all the seminal Fantasy works, there are certain authors that are named as setting the standard. Before Tolkien, there was Robert E. Howard, whose epic tales have entertained readers for over eighty years.
Here, to tie in to the latest impending film (starring Jason Momoa) we have what I will describe as a Conan primer. It’s not ‘the Complete Conan’ of twenty-one stories (you’d need the lovely Gollancz leather bound Black Library edition for that), but instead a select grouping of eight novella/novelettes, one article setting out the fictional world of Conan, one piece of verse (‘Cimmeria’) and a brief paragraph biography of Howard. The stories originally date from 1933 – 1953, with most published in 1934.
This short time of intensive publication is such for a very sad reason. Howard killed himself, following the death of his mother, at the age of thirty in June 1936. Most of his Conan tales therefore were written between 1932 and 1936, and set in the Hyborean Age, which Howard described as a time after the disappearance of Atlantis but before present civilisations appeared.
The tales included here are: The Tower of the Elephant; Rogues in the House; The Frost Giant’s Daughter; Queen of the Black Coast; A Witch Shall Be Born; The People of the Black Circle; Red Nails; Beyond the Black River; and the background article for the stories, The Hyborian Age.
The selection is generally a good one. The tales are not in written/publication order, but instead broadly chronologically throughout Conan’s life. The Conan in The Tower of the Elephant is described as ‘a youth’, the Conan of Beyond the Black River an older man.
So what will the reader new to the Conan stories get from this collection? Those who know Conan only through the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies may be surprised by what they read here. The Conan of the tales is a more multi-faceted character than those of the 1980’s movies. That’s not to say that he isn’t a killer – he dispatches a rogue in the first four pages! – but as we read, Conan in the stories, more so than the films, is more thoughtful, intelligent, resourceful and cunning.
There are also much darker aspects to these tales, which were not as paramount in the movies. Many of the things Conan fights against are occult-based, or even Lovecraftian. In the first tale alone, The Tower of the Elephant, for example, Conan encounters a blind deformed creature from ‘the green planet Yag’ held captive, and fights giant spiders and an ancient sorcerer to attain a treasured jewel. There are tales here of witches and Pictish wizards, demons and hints at ‘the Elder Worlds’, which give the impression that there is more to this world than we might initially conceive in such short stories.
This should not be too much of a surprise, given that Howard was a friend and regular correspondent with H.P. Lovecraft and it is clear that they shared similar interests in writing. It’s not just coincidence that most of Howard’s stories here were published in Weird Tales, the literary residence of Cthuluian H.P.
What works here throughout, still, and like Lovecraft, is that dazzling baroque of images and places as Conan goes from one challenge to the next:
“By the side of the caravan road a heavy cross had been planted, and on this grim tree a man hung, nailed there by iron spikes through his hands and feet. Naked but for a loin-cloth, the man was almost a giant in stature, and his muscles stood out in thick corded ridges on limbs and body, which the sun had long ago burned brown…” ”
“A Witch Shall Be Born”
And this from a writer of mid to late twenties in age! If you can cope with, or indeed relish, such dialogue as “Keep back, you barbarian dog! I’ll spit you like a roast pig!” or “I killed three of the blue bearded beasts, by Ishtar!” then you’ll love these. They are rip-roaring reads that can take the reader away to other worlds and places, and must have been nectar to a Fantasy reader in the 1930’s.
There are, however, some aspects that work less well to the modern palette. The tales are of Conan’s meetings with the other races of Howard’s world, and, as you might expect, there are parallels with more earth-bound cultures and races that will have been in keeping with the 1930’s viewpoint and less so today. The tales are about race and racism:
“The blonde Achaians, Gauls and Britons, for instance, were descendants of pure-blooded AEsir… …and from pure-blooded Shemites, or Shemites mixed with Hyborian or Nordic blood, were descended the Arabs, the Israelites, and other straighter-featured Semites.”
“The Hyborian Age”
Anyone using the term ‘pure-blood’ these days uses it with caution. The Hyborian/European, not to mention Shemitish/Semitic similarity has been noticed by many. In these tales, the Shemitish hook noses are mentioned and may sit a little uncomfortably with the contemporary reader.
Similar points can be made about the role of women here too. Even when there are female characters, Conan’s world is very masculine and the threats to him are often from women (Queen of the Black Coast; A Witch Shall Be Born) when they’re not being lusted over. (Psychologists could have a field-day!) Women in this primitive world are often there as ‘wenches’, to be servile, tamed, wooed and fought against.
In this collection we have Queen of the Black Coast, with Conan becoming a notorious pirate and plundering the coastal villages of Kush alongside Bêlit, a strong-willed pirate queen and Conan’s first lover:
“She turned toward Conan, her bosom heaving, her eyes flashing. Fierce fingers of wonder caught at his heart. She was slender, yet formed like a goddess: at once lithe and voluptuous. Her only garment was a broad silken girdle. Her white ivory limbs and the ivory globes of her breasts drove a beat of fierce passion through the Cimmerian’s pulse, even in the panting fury of battle. Her rich black hair, black as a Stygian night, fell in rippling burnished clusters down her supple back. Her dark eyes burned on the Cimmerian.”
We also have Red Nails, Conan’s last Conan tale published in his lifetime, which unusually for Howard is told mainly from the female viewpoint of Valeria, though Howard’s description of her is hardly politically correct:
“She was tall, full-bosomed, and large-limbed, with compact shoulders. Her whole figure reflected an unusual strength, without detracting from the femininity of her appearance. She was all woman, in spite of her bearing and her garments. The latter were incongruous, in view of her present environs. Instead of a skirt she wore short, wide-legged silk breeches, which ceased a hand’s breadth short of her knees, and were upheld by a wide silken sash worn as a girdle. Flaring-topped boots of soft leather came almost to her knees, and a low-necked, wide-collared, wide-sleeved silk shirt completed her costume. On one shapely hip she wore a straight double-edged sword, and on the other a long dirk. Her unruly golden hair, cut square at her shoulders, was confined by a band of crimson satin.”
Whilst not defending Howard, these two examples are typical of a view prevalent at the time of writing. Bearing in mind the audience Howard was writing for at the time (predominantly, though not exclusively, young men), it can perhaps be understood, if not agreed with.
Put together out of their original context, with the reader not waiting a month or more until the next tale, the two examples above show that these stories can appear a little repetitive and unremittingly intense. Howard was not afraid of using similar words and phrases when working on time schedules seen as ridiculously short these days, for very little wage. Most readers would not realise the similarities, having read them a month or more apart.
Despite these not-inconsiderable issues, Conan is one of the seminal templates of epic Fantasy, and therefore should be read by all interested in the origins of the genre. Nearly eighty years on, for all their faults, the stories still have an energy and an intensity that will keep contemporary readers entertained, if they can read them in their original context.
In summary, this edition is what I would call ‘Conan-light/lite’. It serves as a great introduction to Howard’s writing, and for the uninitiated is a great place to be introduced to the Cimmerian. For some that may well be enough, and if that is so, then this book gives you a good idea of what Howard has to offer. Others may well want to go further, and so I will point them then to ‘the full-fat collection’ for more.
In my opinion, if the new film, due later this month, follows these tales more closely it should be a good one. Here’s hoping!
Mark Yon, August 2011